Sunday, May 15, 2016
A family visiting Mexico found itself in a difficult situation. On Sept. 6, 1960, the Salado River in Mexico, overran its banks. Flood waters filled the main road leading across the border into the U.S. Numerous cars and trucks stalled while trying to cross the border. However, a tow truck driver was watching the mess with a smile. You can guess why. He charged an hug fee to tow waterlogged cars across the border.
Then along came this old station wagon, packed with a family from the U.S., a man, a woman, and three small children. They were obviously tired and wanted to get home. The man approached the tow truck driver about a tow across the border. The truck driver demanded an outrageous sum of money. As the man considered his options, a Greyhound bus pulled up to the road. Suddenly, the man knew what to do! As the bus charged across the flooded road, the man pulled his station wagon behind the bus and traveled in its wake. The bus displaced enough water to clear the roadway for the station wagon.
Welcome to this celebration of Pentecost. I consider Pentecost the birthday of the church. More properly it’s the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers and empowered them to do amazing things. Metaphorically, the Spirit parted the waters to help those early believers reach thousands of people with the Good News of Christ.
An even better analogy to Pentecost is a story from the 1800s. Some people wanted to build a bridge across Niagara Falls. Engineers were consulted. Money was raised. No stone was left unturned, but they couldn’t get a cable across the Falls. They couldn’t float it across the rapids. They couldn’t shoot it far enough with a bow and arrow. They couldn’t climb the steep cliffs and get it across that way.
Finally, a ten-year old boy made a ridiculous suggestion: Fly the cable across the gorge on a kite. How absurd! How foolish! the engineers said. Yet, after trying every other conceivable method, that’s exactly what they finally did. They flew the cable across with a kite.
The reason this is a better is, of course, the relationship between the words, “spirit” and “wind.” The word spirit in both Hebrew and Greek means “breath” or “wind.” Both a breath of air and a breeze are appropriate images for the Holy Spirit doing its work in the world.
You remember when God created Adam. He breathed into him the breath of life. In other words, God breathed into him His own Spirit. The point is that the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the believer and gives us the lift we need to witness to the presence of God in the world.
Our lesson for the day from the second chapter of Acts demonstrates the Holy Spirit in action. You know the story well. The day of Pentecost had come. The word “Pentecost” is literally translated, “fiftieth day.” It was originally a Jewish holy day celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of the Passover week. It was an annual feast and was one of the three great annual feasts of Israel (Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths). The fact that Pentecost was a major festival is indicated by the fact that Jews from all over the Mediterranean region had poured into Jerusalem for the celebration.
On the Day of Pentecost, the apostles were also in Jerusalem where they were gathered in a house. We would need Hollywood special effects to do justice to what happened next. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house, and the Apostles saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. Suddenly they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. This attracted a crowd. Remember, Jews from all over the known world were visiting Jerusalem on that day. Do you suppose that was a coincidence? Hardly. What a great opportunity for publicizing the Gospel all over the known world!
When these visitors heard the sound of the disciples speaking in these different languages, they were confused, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?”
They were essentially asking, how are these uneducated rednecks speaking in all these languages? Good question. And there’s only one explanation, a miracle. Of course, there’s more than one way of viewing this miracle. We should reread the second chapter of Acts. The miracle of Pentecost wasn’t only the gift of tongues; it was also the gift of ears. And, of course, the miracle here isn’t only what was said but what was heard. Each heard and understood in his own language. Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of the disciples and said, They’re drunk.
Then Peter stood up addressed the crowd: Peter began telling the story of Jesus. And when he was finished, those who heard his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. And the church, indeed, was born that day. A mighty movement began that shook the world. Like a Greyhound bus parting the waters for an old station wagon or like a kite bearing a cable above Niagara Falls, the Holy Spirit took a handful of uneducated men from an obscure part of the Middle East and started a movement that’s still at work more than 2,000 years later preparing the world for the kingdom of God. It’s a wonderful story, but how does it apply to our lives, your life and mine?
Notice, first of all, that Pentecost is a God thing. Most often in life God works through very ordinary processes to bring His will into being. Sometimes He uses people who are specially gifted, but it’s usually not very dramatic.
A professor sits at his desk one evening working on the next day’s lectures. His housekeeper has laid that day’s mail and papers at his desk and he begins to shuffle through them discarding most of the mail to the wastebasket. He then notices a magazine, which was not even addressed to him but delivered to his office by mistake. It falls open to an article titled, “The Needs of the Congo Mission.” He begins to read the article when he’s suddenly consumed by these words: “The need is great here. We have no one to work the northern province of Gabon in the central Congo. And it is my prayer as I write this article that God will lay His hand on one--one on whom, already, the Master’s eyes have been cast--that he or she shall be called to this place to help us.”
And Albert Schweitzer closes the magazine and writes in his diary: “My search is over.” He goes to the Congo. That little article, hidden in a magazine intended for someone else, is placed by accident in his mailbox. By chance he notices the title. It leaps out at him. Was it chance?
Well, that depends on your theology. It certainly wasn’t by chance that Professor Schweitzer responded to God’s call. It’s evident that God had been working on him for some time. And even though Schweitzer’s commitment touched millions around the world, it was a gradual thing. There was nothing very dramatic about it in the beginning.
That’s the way God normally works--through the normal processes of daily living. If you’re waiting for something spectacular to happen in your life as a sign that God’s calling you, you’ll probably miss God’s call. That would be a real shame.
At Pentecost, however, God worked in such a way that no open-minded person could doubt that this was a God-breathed event. First there was the wind and the tongues of fire. Then there was the gift of inspired speech.
I'm sure everyone is familiar with the language learning software Rosetta stone. The now recognizable yellow boxes, each with the name of a language prominently displayed upon it. A traveler could purchase a set of tapes for learning any of a number of the world’s major languages. With these tapes, plus time and persistence, it’s possible to become, if not fluent, then at least familiar, with the everyday speech of millions of people.
What’s now available for sale, came free to the first disciples on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit of God filled them so that they spoke diverse languages which were recognized by the crowd which filled the streets of Jerusalem that day. People in the crowd were confused to hear folks from Galilee talking in languages from all around the Mediterranean.
The mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the speaking in many different languages, this is not from man, but from God. However, the best indication this event was from God was the instantaneous change that took place in the disciples, especially Simon Peter. This is the same Peter who was so cowardly the night the soldiers arrested Jesus in the garden that he denied he even knew Him because he was afraid of being killed also. This is the same Peter who wanted to go fishing even though he was called to be a fisher of men and having been commissioned to go into all the world. And yet, here he is on the Day of Pentecost before this enormous crowd, boldly declaring that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And quite miraculously three thousand souls are baptized and added to the church. Wow! Peter could never have done this on his own. Pentecost was definitely a God thing.
Of course, God-things are still happening anywhere people will wait on the gift of God’s spirit and allow God’s spirit to do great things through them. That’s why worship is important in our lives. I hope you don’t come to church as if you’re visiting a museum or going to a theater, to be fascinated or entertained. I hope you come here each week prepared to receive a life-changing encounter with God’s Spirit. I hope you come anticipating a God-thing occurring in your own life.
Another story that I think is particularly appropriate for Pentecost. It’s about a man who invented the art of making fire. The man took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could use fire, they could cook, could keep themselves warm, etc.
The people of this tribe were so grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He didn’t want gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being. He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention.
People there were interested, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of their priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like. But they were afraid now that the people might turn against them, so they did something a little different, they made a portrait of the man and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they did for centuries. The worship went on, but there was no fire.
Of course, the point is that this could be a picture of many churches today. The worship would go on, but there’s no fire. We don’t gather in this place each week to simply pay our respects to the crucified Christ. We gather here in the expectation that we might encounter Him in this place and that He might fill us with His Spirit, fill us with His love that we might go forth from this place to do great things in His name. Pentecost is a God-thing. Through the power of the Holy Spirit God worked to lift the church to a new level of service to the world. On that first Pentecost a new movement began and it continues today. Today it’s in our hands. Is the fire still burning? Is the wind of the Spirit still blowing? Are the waters still being parted? The Spirit is still doing its part if we’re faithful to Christ’s call to make disciples of all people. May Pentecost 2016 be a time when God’s Spirit fills each of us and helps us become what God has called us to become. Do we have the ears to hear the message of Pentecost? Amen.